A cafeteria fight at Minneapolis South High School escalated into a melee involving hundreds of students Thursday, spurred by what parents and students said are growing racial tensions between Somali-American students and others.

Police said that 200 to 300 students shoved, kicked and threw bottles at one other and that extra Minneapolis police officers were called in to break up the fighting. Three students and one staff member were taken to a hospital for medical treatment, and police said rioting and disorderly conduct charges could be filed.

"We're very fortunate no one got seriously injured," said police spokesman Sgt. William Palmer, adding that in 19 years, "I honestly can't recall a [similar] situation of this magnitude."

While school district leaders said they didn't know what sparked the fights, students such as Adnan Farah said they were the culmination of increasing racial tensions.

"This school is not safe for Somali students," said Farah, a junior. "Throughout this year, there have been a lot of fights."

Senior Guled Omar said he and other Somali-American students feel targeted at the school. "I don't know if it's because we're minorities or the newest immigrant group," he said.

Omar said that students have complained to the school district and principal about perceived discrimination, but that nothing has been done.

School district spokesman Stan Alleyne said he couldn't comment on the students' claims, but added that the district takes any complaints about racism seriously. "It is a safe school," he said. Principal Cecilia Saddler did not reply to messages to comment.

Officials briefly considered canceling Friday classes, but decided instead to hold school, with some restrictions. Students will remain in their classrooms during class periods and access to the building will be limited.

"We are comfortable with the security measures that we currently have in place and we look forward to providing a normal instructional day," the school said on its website.

Tensions aren't new

The fighting came two days after an article in South's student newspaper, the Southerner, described Somali-American students' sense that tension around ethnic or racial differences has grown this year. Two students told the newspaper that earlier this school year, a welcome banner in Somali was ripped off a balcony by two students and that a lunch table that primarily had been used by East African students was removed from the lunchroom.

The article also described recent efforts to increase dialogue, such as creation of a Somali Student Association.

Palmer said Thursday's incident started during the first lunch period around 11:45 a.m., when a student threw a milk carton at another student, sparking a small fight. By the third lunch hour, about 12:45 p.m., tensions and unsubstantiated rumors about that initial fight spread and a melee erupted. Twenty to 25 staff members intervened, as did two school resource officers, who then called Minneapolis police officers for help.

Omar and Farah said Somali students jumped in to help one of their number who was involved in one fight. Farah said the violence "was a racial issue. This is just the biggest one throughout the year."

Palmer said the students dispersed only after police sprayed a chemical irritant. No one was arrested and no weapons were used, he said. The campus was placed on lockdown for the rest the day, with students remaining in their classes before being dismissed as usual.

Later, junior Simon Quevedo said the fights during the first two lunch periods escalated as word spread. "People came in to back up their friends and it turned into an altercation," he said. "I was a bit scared, because you never know what people will have on them."

Student Council president Connor Bass described the scene as "chaos." The senior said five to six fights were going on simultaneously. "When the cops came and started spraying Mace, it was just pandemonium," he said.

Palmer said police are still investigating the incident, which was captured on surveillance cameras inside the school.

Integration, not interaction

South High parent Kate Towle said she heard about the fighting when her son texted her after lunch. She said she has heard about students feeling unsafe and racial tension, but added that the school has been working to reduce conflicts.

Towle advises a group called Students Together as Allies for Racial Trust (START), which South students began in 2009. It meets weekly to discuss intercultural issues to try to bridge differences. "Like any area, these skills have to be developed like math, history. ... You can't throw kids in a building and expect them to get along," she said. "It's a challenge for all of our students to live amid such rich diversity."

Almost half of the 1,750 students at the school are students of color, and of those, 8 percent are of Somali heritage, according to the school district.

Racial groups don't interact much at South, Towle said. Of the more than 70 students involved with START, a majority are of Somali heritage, "which shows there's a need for them to be accepted," Towle said.

University of Minnesota newsroom intern Brian Arola contributed to this report. pwalsh@startribune.com • 612-673-4482 kelly.smith@startribune.com 612-673-4141